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City schools experiment with STEM projects, online portfolios
Brendan Martin & Susan Ramsey CSKUL
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Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow
Brendan Martin, engineering teacher at Buford Middle School, and Susan Ramsey, the city schools' science coordinator, gave a presentation on project-based learning and STEM education.
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Josh Mandell | Thursday, March 30, 2017 at 10:16 p.m.

Members vote to allow more lower-income families to pay lowest CLASS fee

The Charlottesville School Board on Thursday received its annual briefing on its project-based learning and online portfolios. This year’s presentation focused on science, technology, engineering and math education.

Charlottesville City Schools’ most recent strategic plan, adopted in 2011, calls for the common curriculum for each grade level or course to include at least one performance- or project-based assessment.

Many project-based assessments in elementary schools are part of the division’s iSTEM initiative, which integrates STEM activities into various areas of the curriculum.

Susan Ramsey, science coordinator for the city schools, said students at Walker Upper Elementary recently learned about both STEM and history by creating devices that could remove seeds from cotton, like Eli Whitney’s original cotton gin. The students tested their inventions on 100 pounds of cotton donated by a Texas farmer.

The iSTEM initiative is designed to prepare students for the engineering programs at Buford Middle School and Charlottesville High School. Buford engineering teacher Brendan Martin shared stories from his classroom with the School Board on Thursday.

Martin employs a classroom management strategy called Scrum, inspired by a project management framework for software developers. Scrum teaching methods are meant to help groups of students move through self-directed projects step-by-step and provide frequent opportunities to reflect on the learning process.

Martin said that Scrum, in combination with new online learning tools, transformed project-based learning for his students. “I started seeing some amazing things happen,” Martin said.

Charlottesville schools also began using Seesaw this year as a new online platform for digital portfolios of student work. Martin’s students have used Seesaw to document their learning with blog posts and videos. Martin said this documentation has added an intensive writing component to STEM lessons.

“In the portfolios … there is a nice progression of how the students’ writing has evolved,” he said. Martin said his students’ posts often reveal that problems with their projects are due to small misunderstandings of the assignment or prior lessons.

“Seesaw allows me to give quick, meaningful feedback on their work,” Martin said.

Martin described how his students refine their projects through trial and error and with input from their peers. He posts encouraging comments when students are frustrated by a lack of progress.

“That’s a great partnership that I can share with parents,” Martin said. “They can see what their students are doing in real time.”

Ramsey said that online platforms like Seesaw would make it easy for students to engage with teachers outside of the classroom, even during the summer recess.

“This opens up a whole realm of opportunities for us to keep up a dialogue with our students,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said that division staff members are creating an inventory of “21st-century skills” that teachers can “tag” when reviewing students’ online portfolios.

James Henderson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said students are using their electronic portfolios differently from how he had originally envisioned.

“At first, we mainly thought of the e-portfolios as something students could show to a college or a potential employer,” Henderson said. “Now, the portfolios are allowing us to build a much richer learning environment.”

Charlottesville’s integration of technology to support innovative teaching and improved student learning was ranked fifth nationally among mid-sized school divisions by the Center for Digital Education this year.

In other business, the School Board approved changes to the fee structure for the division’s CLASS after-school program for elementary students.

After School Board members voiced concerns about imposing higher fees on the city’s poorest families, division staff extended the lowest possible fee to families with annual incomes up to $25,000, instead of $20,000. The new structure also increased the span between fee income levels from $10,000 to $15,000.

Superintendent Rosa Atkins said that if the current fee structure were carried over to next year, CLASS would require $158,000 from the school division’s operating budget to remain solvent.

Board members Adam Hastings, Leah Puryear and Juandiego Wade voted to approve the new fee structure, while Jennifer McKeever abstained.

McKeever said she wanted to discuss including the CLASS program in its operating budget at a future meeting.

“I believe our whole division benefits from [CLASS], and our division pays for many programs that have no costs for families,” McKeever said.

Board members Sherry Kraft, Amy Laufer and Ned Michie were absent from Thursday’s meeting.

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